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New Zealand's WWI veterans had higher risk of early death

New research on the impact of the First World War on participating New Zealand soldiers shows they typically lost around eight years of life and had an increased risk of early death in the post-war period, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal.

In the study, researchers from King’s College London, the University of Otago, Wellington and Massey University randomly selected 350 soldiers who embarked on troopships in 1914, along with a comparison “non-combat” group of 350 who departed on troopships in late 1918 but for whom the war ended before they got to the frontlines. 

A quarter of the 1914 group died during the war, with deaths from injury predominating (94%) over deaths from disease (6%). Their lifespan was estimated at 65.9 years, compared to 74.2 years for the non-combat group - an eight-year gap. As well as warfare-related injury deaths, other causes of death included those from chemical weapons and various infectious diseases such as malaria and pandemic influenza.

The study also found that among survivors of the war, the 1914 veterans lived a statistically significant 1.7 years less. Survivors in the combat group typically lived to 72.6 years compared to 74.3 years in the non-combat group. Further analysis of death certificate data suggested war-related causes such as suicide may have played a role. 

Another factor was the high burden of injuries, with an estimated 41% of New Zealand soldiers receiving non-fatal wounds in the war. These injuries are likely to have increased the risk of death in subsequent surgical operations after the war and also death from cardiovascular disease.

Professor Nick Wilson, lead author of the study from the University of Otago, says: “From other wars we know that there is evidence that combat experience is a risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans. This in turn is linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease. PTSD is also associated with increased risk of suicide.”

Dr Jennifer Summers, co-author of the study from King’s College London, says: “The findings of this study are applicable to other populations, as the New Zealand records represent about 40% of the New Zealand adult male population during WW1 and the military in 1918 represented around 10% of the total New Zealand population. 

“This study emphasises the long-term impact that severe trauma can have on individuals. The results suggest that ‘survivors’ of earlier WW1 campaigns, such as Gallipoli and the Western Front, suffered a notably greater life-long burden compared to non-combat personnel, with a higher risk of premature death post-war and a shortened lifespan.”

While war-related death tolls for combatant nations of WWI are available, this appears to be the first study to provide estimates for the war-related life lost per participating soldier and for the veterans where an appropriate comparison group is used.

Thanks to the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s Cenotaph database, Archives New Zealand’s digitalised military files and other online records, the team was able to find nearly all the dates of birth and deaths among these soldiers, apart from a few cases such as deserters and some who may have given a false name when joining the military. 

An estimated 100,144 New Zealand military personnel served overseas in WWI, mainly on the Western Front, but also in campaigns in Gallipoli and Palestine. There were 16.6% (16,700) who died during the war, with others dying subsequently raising the total to an estimated 18,311 by the end of 1923. 

Notes to editors

For further information, please contact Jenny Gimpel in the King’s College London press office on 0207 848 4334, email jenny.gimpel@kcl.ac.uk.

Mortality of first world war military personnel: comparison of two military cohorts by Wilson et al is published in the British Medical Journal and can be accessed here